Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (2021) – Cinema Review

Y/N? Yes.

Director: Keishi Otomo

Stars: Takeru Satoh, Emi Takei, Mackenyu Arata, Yosuke Eguchi, Munetaka Aoki & Yu Aoi

Review by Damocles

I think I liked it? But then I’m such a huge fan so this bias is probably clouding my judgement.

Let’s just get one thing very clear …. Rurouni Kenshin has had a substantial impact on me through my more troubled years and I won’t deny the fact that I have a huge blind spot for this series. So expect this review to be forgiving.

That said, my cynical and critical side is always active, so maybe I will be a tiny bit balanced.

One of the biggest issues with the Rurouni Kenshin series, is the fact that it is notoriously good if you know the source material (the original 90s anime, the manga and the darker OVAs) and incredibly difficult to appreciate if you know nothing about it.

In fact, whenever I recommend this series, I always hesitate because those who are unaware of the source material will probably take very little from it, beyond an appreciation for the potential high budget Japanese action cinema has, if harnessed properly and how evocative the score is.

Those same people will also have their appreciation be sharply balanced by the fact that live action anime costumes look ridiculous, as does hair and styling and there is a bit too much melodramatic expository dialogue.

Not to mention there are far too many damnable flashbacks.

But for the fans, like myself, this film was an excellent interpretation of Kenshin’s final arc and the primary reason why we chose to watch the film: the fight sequences, did not disappoint at all.

Regardless of what type of viewer you are, the Rurouni Kenshin series have always excelled at their incredible camerawork and choreography, with some truly imaginative swordplay and action that pushes the limit of what stunt-work can create.

The films have always beautifully crossed the line between realism and fantasy, with the cinematography to match such graceful and deadly stunt work. If there is a reason to watch this film, it is the final action sequence, which arguably puts a lot of the previous sword-fights to shame.

But does the plot work as well to heighten the action?

This is where Rurouni Kenshin’s falters, as die-hard fans such as myself will find the plot adequate, but remarkably slow paced and casual viewers will find themselves checking out, due to the lack of context in which a lot of the expository dialogue is delivered and an under-appreciation for the emotional stakes.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Final’s weak plot highlights the unique challenge in which a lot of anime/manga adaptations must face, when translating a huge story arc into a condensed 2 hour viewing experience. In fact, it more than showcases the challenge, it actively falls into the typical Japanese trappings that plague their normal story-telling style.

  • An over-reliance on flashbacks, that often condense too much in their sequences, without any real stakes established and clear indications of the characters’ (in the flashback) importance.
  • Insufficient development for a lot of character’s motivations, with singular lines that somehow are meant to justify entire betrayals and fight scenes.
  • Too many scenes that showcase a character’s anguish but doesn’t quite seem to delve further into their actual motivation or development.
  • Side characters that are more or less fan service elements than actual people that populate the world of the film.
  • Dialogue that is inherently too Japanese in their interpretation.

To touch further on that, what I deem as excessively Japanese is scripting that requires a lot of viewer’s interpretation and reading between the lines to understand motivations. This is a very short-hand story technique that is common across many Japanese narrative styles, and it was a skill I had to hone after reading the entire breadth of Haruki Murakami’s works all in English.

A lot of the phrases and dialogue in this film will sound natural to Japanese viewers, but will definitely confuse those who are unfamiliar with how Japanese to English is translated and the short cuts in speech the film-makers are employing to inject emotional stakes.

If these elements alienate or detract from your film experience, that is completely understandable

However, it did not affect my own experience as I have come to expect such flaws and narrative quirks, especially in this series. This film did not do any more or less than what I have seen previously in the context of their story-telling.

That being said, there were a lot of backtracking that I thought was unnecessary and padded out the run time longer than it needed to. Many flashbacks repeated lines that I thought were not in need of repeating.

From a more technical standpoint, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final ramps up the cinematography with better shot compositions, more plays on weather conditions and evocative use of slow motion. There are many scenes that stand-out visually, from hot-air balloons over a burning Tokyo, to footage of Rurouni Kenshin performing parkour moves that highlight his speed and agility in a incredibly detailed set.

To highlight the film from a costuming perspective, all the characters, with the exception of the villain, are garbed beautifully in traditional clothing with easter eggs that hint at the anime origins of the characters, like Aoshi’s hint of blue in his dark hair. Kenshin’s wardrobe in particular is extraordinary, with a lot of beautiful subdued colours that highlight the natural lines of the kimono and accent his dark wood scabbard. The final outfits of Kenshin and Kaoru really showcase how rich and layered traditional Japanese clothing can be, and might be one of my favourite pairing of colours on screen this year.

The only issue perhaps is the villain himself, whose outfits are just a bit too outlandish for the period setting and have a strange anachronistic feel to them, in contrast to the traditional outfits on display. In particular the bright orange costume jarred too much with the background, and proved more distracting than fashionable.

Naoki Sato’s score does not delve too much into new territory, with the film soundtrack resembling’s his greatest hits from the previous 3 films. There are just enough new melodies and throwbacks to the series’ strongest themes that overall, create a still pleasing soundscape. I have always love how traditional yet modern the score are in Rurouni Kenshin and this film is no different.

Overall, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final is a decent swan-song to a series that has highlighted the heights and lows of anime/manga to film adaptations.

These films aren’t perfect and will still fall prey to a lot of stereotypical Japanese story-telling problems that can alienate casual viewers but the series has proved that with the right source material, such adaptations can capture the flamboyance of animation without sacrificing realistic settings and still innovate action cinema to another level.

A scene to recall: The film has a lot of attractive shots, that had me pausing. But it was this one that I really liked, with the rain coming in just so with perfect timing. Nothing quite captures moodiness like Japanese forests and traditional garb.

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